Fire Sprinklers At Great Falls High School?



School District says ‘No’ to fire sprinkler system at Great Falls High School.

Why has the school district ignored the urging of City of Great Falls building officials and the Great Falls Fire Rescue Department to include a fire sprinkler system in the plans for the historic portion of Great Falls High School which currently has no such system? Is it the cost? The school district is spending $38M of taxpayer’s money, but protection of lives and property is not a priority?

FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration National Fire Data Center in a 2014 reported through their NFIRS (National Fire Incident Reporting System) that:

“An estimated 4,000 school building fires were reported by United States fire departments each year and caused an estimated 75 injuries and $66.1 million in property loss.”

Closer to home, In January of 2017, Helena High School suffered $2M in damage to ten classrooms from an intentionally caused fire. According to the Helena Independent Record, “It was nearly three months before classes were resumed in the damaged wing of the school.” Helena High did not have a complete fire sprinkler system.

In 2012 and again in 2014, a student, who said he had been drinking and felt he had suffered mistreatment by the school, intentionally set fires at the Heritage Christian School in Bozeman, in the area of the gymnasium.

Fires do happen in our schools, and approximately 1/3 are intentionally set. Virtually every fire professional in this country is a strong advocate for fire sprinkler systems in almost all occupancy types, and especially in schools.

“Fires do happen in our schools, and approximately 1/3 are intentionally set. Virtually every fire professional in this country is a strong advocate for fire sprinkler systems in almost all occupancy types, and especially in schools.”

David Kurasz, executive director of the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board reported this year; “at Lacey Township Middle School in Ocean County, NJ, a fire recently broke out in a second-floor classroom. The building’s fire sprinkler system contained the fire within minutes, preventing serious property damage (and potentially saving lives). The school was closed for three days due to minor water damage. In 2014, a fire ripped through James Monroe Elementary School in Edison, NJ, destroying the building. Three years and $26 million later, students at James Monroe were finally able to set foot in their new school. The difference between the results of the two fires is clear: one contained by fire sprinklers closed for three days, while the other closed for three years.”

Can schools really be prepared for an actual fire emergency by conducting fire drills alone?

Mr. Kurasz also notes: “Monthly fire drills highlight the importance, but do not consider smoke, and students do not know how to react in low visibility situations.”

The argument that fire sprinkler systems are too expensive simply does not hold water. Cost saving can be realized on the GFHS project by installing a fire sprinkler system. A 75% reduction in required fire flow (standard available water supply), fire lanes and the required 3-hour fire separation (fire-resistant construction materials that can sustain 3 hours of fire exposure) between the historic school and the new addition would result in substantial savings.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the $2 million that I have estimated the District will need to spend to acquire and develop 100 parking spaces at approximately $20,000 per space, on a fire sprinkler system for the historic GFH original structure?

Calls to GFPS administrators inquiring about whether any, or none, of the District’s other 18 schools are equipped with fire sprinkler systems, have not been returned.

The good news is, if you are a student at GFHS who happens to be spending some time in the new administrative offices if a fire breaks out, you are probably safe because those offices will be protected by a required fire sprinkler system but the historic 1930 school building and classrooms will not be.

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Philip M. Faccenda
Philip M. Faccenda
Philip M. Faccenda is an AIA award-winning architect and planner. He is the Editor-in-Chief of E-City Beat.


  1. So important to have fire-proofed administrative offices but to hell with student safety. Hmmm, something’s wrong here…..

  2. Am I reading this right? The school district said NO to installing a sprinkler system to protect the children in older class rooms, BUT the adults in the new admin offices WILL be protected with a sprinkler system?
    That’s just wrong!

  3. “At the urging of the city and fire department” is there not a building code that has to be followed when doing an up grade to an existing building?

  4. Might this have something to do with the fact that GFHS is on the National Register of Historic Places? I know of some cases where certain building changes are not allowed in order to maintain the character of the building.

  5. Spend money on a few parking spots,demolish a historical building and many dollars on the removal of air cooling and beautiful trees but no protection for staff and children from fire and smoke ….??”.. The parking garage was needed on the property they own now.


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